Should You Buy Clothes Second Hand To Reduce Your Environmental Impact?
Long gone are the days of darning socks, siblings wearing the same hand-me-down clothes during childhood, and jeans that last a lifetime.
Over the past decade fashion has gone fast. Shopping is a hobby, with constant discounts and sales, plus new ‘seasons’ of clothing hitting the stores every week. The amount of clothes that we buy has increased vastly. Take the four years from 2012 to 2016, for instance. The total amount of clothing bought in the UK has increased from 200,000 tonnes in 2012 to a huge 1,130,000 tonnes in 2016 .
That’s a staggering increase.
And surely that can’t be good for the environment? Clothes don’t just miraculously appear in our shops. They are produced using materials, energy, water. And, of course, this production produced greenhouse gas emissions too. In 2016 the UK’s clothing was responsible for a huge 26.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions alone.
So if you want to reduce your personal environmental impact, should you be shopping for clothes second hand?
The environmental impact of new clothes
Most clothes today are made from polyester or acrylic, both forms of plastic. It’s a by-product of the oil and gas industry, and it’s estimated that it takes about 70 million barrels of oil to produce the polyester used in fabrics each year. At the same time, producing polyester is incredibly heat intensive, meaning that it needs a lot of energy as well as a lot of water in cooling. Polyester is also dyed before it becomes your clothes, using dye which is toxic to humans and animals. Waste water from the dyeing in textile factories ends up in our water system, polluting rivers in areas of the world reliant on this industry.
Even if you’re buying new clothes made from natural materials, they’re going to have an environmental impact. Cotton is commonly used in clothing production, either on its own or mixed with polyester. Cotton is an incredibly thirsty plant. It takes 1800 gallons of water to make just one pair of jeans. It also requires a lot of pesticides to grow, with cotton consuming 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of pesticides — for just 2.4% of land.
On top of this, there’s the emissions from transportation, with most of the world’s clothes produced in Asia and sold in the USA. There’s also a lot of waste within the fast fashion industry, with some clothes never making it to the shop due to overproduction. These clothes end up in landfill, where they cannot biodegrade.
So should you buy second hand?
Research by WRAP found that by extending the average life of clothes by just three months per item, from 2 years and 2 months to 2 years and 5 months, would lead to a 5–10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints. It keeps clothes out of landfill, and prevents the production of new clothing items.
“Re-use and recycling offer some carbon savings because the lifetime of clothing that is re-used or recycled is extended. Where this displaces a sale of a new garment,10 the effects on the environment from fibre extraction and processing are avoided.” — WRAP report
So, in this case, the answer seems simple. Yes, if you want to reduce your environmental impact, you should definitely shop for clothes second hand.
At the same time, you can also extend the lifespan of your clothes in other ways. Avoid fashion ‘trends’ and opt instead for timeless classics. Look after the clothes you have, treating them well and fixing them if they do start to get worn — take a leaf out of the ‘make do and mend’ book.
It’s also important to acknowledge that even second hand clothes aren’t perfect when it comes to environmental impact. Washing clothes is a major part of the environmental impact of any item of clothing, because of the energy that it uses. If your clothes are made of synthetic materials they’ll also emit microplastics into the water system during washing.
So it’s also worth trying to minimise your washing, washing your clothes when they actually need it. Plus, opt for natural fibres such as flax, linen, or wool where possible (second hand or not).
Where can you buy clothes second hand?
If you want to give clothes shopping second hand a go, there are lots of ways to do it, both in person and from the comfort of your laptop.
- Charity shops: most charity shops have a clothing section where you can find second hand clothing, with the added benefit of supporting a worthwhile cause whilst you reduce your environmental impact too.
- Vintage or thrift shops: vintage clothes are essentially second hand, just with an element of trendiness sprinkled on top.
- Swap shops: are becoming more common again, where you take items of clothing from your wardrobe and swap them for ‘new’ items from other peoples’ wardrobe. It’s worth having a look and seeing if there’s one in your local area — or you could have an evening swap with your friends!
- Ebay: if you have something specific in mind then Ebay is a great option for shopping online second hand, with some brilliant bargains to be had.
- Vinted, Depop, thredup: these are all online marketplaces for second hand clothes, where you’ll buy direct from another user.
If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your environmental impact:
- Is buying fairtrade a good way to reduce your environmental impact?
- Should you buy dried or tinned beans?
- Is carbon offsetting a good way to reduce your environmental impact?
- Should you swap plastic bags for tote bags?
- Which kind of milk should you buy?
- Should you buy local produce?
- Should you swap liquid soap for solid soap bars?
 All statistics in this article are taken from WRAP’s 2017 report ‘Valuing Our Clothes’, http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/valuing-our-clothes-the-cost-of-uk-fashion_WRAP.pdf#page=4